A strong scientific culture and high-quality infrastructure, but to some extent France still does not ‘get’ Digital. The transition needs to be driven through and made more pervasive, says Gilles Babinet, France’s Digital Champion in dialogue with the European Commission.

Gilles Babinet is a serial entrepreneur who served as the first-ever President of the Conseil National du numérique, France’s National Digital Council, an advisory committee set up in 2011 by President Sarkozy. L'Atelier caught up with him after his presentation and the subsequent round table session on the subject of the ‘Digital Transition towards the Economy 2.0.’ at the Printemps Numérique (Digital Spring) forum held on 15-16 May in the northern French town of Compiègne.

L’Atelier: Where do you consider France to be in its transition to digital?

Gilles Babinet:The whole issue of digital is one to which it’s extremely difficult to find an answer. France is a country with a strong scientific culture and this knowledge and skills base manifests itself in a number of perhaps surprising ways. This may explain the large number of startups and the high number of apps for mobile devices developed in this country. France ranks number two in app development after the United States. Digital is also supported by high-quality infrastructure, with telecoms companies such as Free providing what is in fact among the cheapest telecoms networks in Europe, if not the world.

On the other hand, France is lagging behind on several key indicators. The way digital is regarded in France has changed considerably in recent years. A few years ago companies only thought about the Internet in terms of the ‘Hadopi’ law* but now digital has become a real means of promoting competitiveness. To illustrate my point however, it’s worth pointing out that France spends less on IT than the OECD average. The health and education sectors in particular could be seeing a lot more progress but the stratified political system here in France makes it very hard to implement any new measures in these areas. Digital is making great strides in France but there’s still a lot to do to achieve a thorough transition.

L’Atelier: You cited the health and education sectors as areas where digital could play a pivotal role. So what measures are needed there?

Gilles Babinet:I fervently believe that France needs to remodel its education system. On this point emerging countries have a lot to teach a country like ours. Those countries have relatively little in terms of digital, and much less powerful infrastructure than ours. Their education methods, however, are just as effective as the traditional ones we use in Europe, if not more so. So we need to completely change the way we teach in France, making full use of the interactive, digital approach. We ought to be using digital, using tablet devices to help gear the education system to individual teaching. That would really benefit our children. This approach would give each child more supported learning time than would be humanly possible for one teacher to devote to the task.

L’Atelier: During the forum session on Digital Transition towards the Economy 2.0, you mentioned that digital could be a major enabler in job creation…

Gilles Babinet:That’s right. There is widespread job creation in digital-related sectors in France – at major companies as much as at smaller firms and startups. There’s an English word to describe this: ‘pervasive’. This means job creation which spreads and impacts all levels of the sector. This is why it’s so difficult to measure the impact of digital. Here again, all companies ought to be taking action. And when I say ‘companies’, I would also add the French governmental authorities to the list because all State institutions – the Legal system, Education, Defence – can benefit from the shift to digital as well. ‘Electronic warfare’ and the full computerisation of legal archives are the next steps in this process. There is therefore a very high potential for job creation in the short and medium term. When it comes to the long term however, no-one can claim to know how that’s going to look.

*a French law passed in 2009, providing for the distribution and protection of creative works on the Internet

By Guillaume Parodi